Beyond the Gallery Guide

John Haber
in New York City

Beyond Chelsea: Changing Spaces, Winter 2004

The theme that day was urban sprawl, but its visual moment came after the latest outposts of new art. I had walked a quarter of a mile past all that, back toward civilization as we New Yorkers know it, when I saw a sign. No, not a revelation—at least the kind that comes to Mel Gibson. I saw an ordinary traffic sign, in sans-serif white on green.

"Welcome to Manhattan." I felt at home already, but what had I left behind? Lynn Hershman's Ruby 2 (Bitforms, 2004)

Welcome to Manhattan

It was not Brooklyn. I had not seen Lisa Kirk install art in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I had not walked over the East River bridges, even on a comfortingly warm winter's day. I had been down a stretch of Canal Street that I barely knew existed.

I had crossed the Lower East Side, on my fourth attempt to find what The Village Voice has dubbed "the Anti-Chelsea." I was hoping to find more of it, too, that afternoon, right across town. I was hoping for artists and curators with the savvy to make the urban scene itself a vital part of their work. And the signs were good. I had already stumbled on the original for a Sichuan restaurant further uptown, now hot in more ways than one.

Had I really discovered art's future? Had I seen the answer to Chelsea's battle for Babylon—that breathless rush, soaring prices, and diminishing expectations? Had I found a hidden art scene beneath Essex Street, like Mike Nelson? Or had I seen instead another urban phenomenon, the trend of the week, like a cover for New York magazine? Blink, I thought, and you might miss this art.

Perhaps I had left another city entirely. I mean London—not literally, of course, but as a model for the display of American art. About six months ago, I had the lucky chance to compare London's scene to New York's. They seemed as different as two cultures and two economies.

America, naturally enough, created the art district as shopping mall, and the coming return of MoMA to Manhattan may intensify the concentration. It began with Soho, which now has the feeling of a mall most weekends without the galleries. Chelsea intensifies the shopping experience, as for Kaari Upson. The galleries tolerate tour guides making money off group visits, without an admission charge. Think of the PA system at Wal-Mart announcing the weekly specials.

London's widely separated galleries and studio collectives suggest a far simpler, less-efficient stage of capitalism. In England, one can imagine art and the urban landscape alike as a collection of small villages. It suggests older traditions, in which art and style matter enough to a nation's values that people talk about them and seek them out. Conversely, it suggests a city less mired in myths of the free market. London, so often at odds with New Labour, remains willing to invest public funds in urban renewal. London's art, whether complacent or contentious, reflects all those public concerns.

London on the Hudson

New York, I argued six months ago, will always have a different cityscape—and a different art to match. I may have spoken too soon, even before the curators of the 2004 Whitney Biennial or 2006 Biennial have weighed in. Suddenly, New York has isolated experiments all over. As in London, it takes determination to find them. It takes stamina to keep walking. It takes more work still just to stay in the know—and I am not sure those who care about art will like admire the barriers of an insider's club.

Ubu, long a home to Surrealist traditions from Kurt Schwitters and Pierre Molinier to Yoko Ono and her uniquely sensual and conceptual art, has moved from the Upper East Side to under the 59th Street Bridge, near a Bed, Bath & (yes) Beyond. Exit Art, the great alternative space, has set up a fresh exit near the Lincoln Tunnel. Ace no doubt led the way years ago, back when Soho really mattered, with a gallery far to the west, by the Holland Tunnel. In a sense, Ace still sets the pace. This winter's most lavishly praised show lay diagonally across the street from the tunnel entrance. Appropriately enough, Hudson Clearing called its group show "Sprawl."

Other venues make things harder still. I walked right past the Canal Street gallery on my first attempt. I had failed to notice the art behind a shop sign left over from an electronics dealer. I almost missed Canada as well—the gallery, not another remnant of England's empire. I had the address, but I almost turned away from the unmarked Chrystie Street entrance. The gallery hides at the end of an L-shaped corridor, way in the back and to the left.

Charles Lane, home to Kenny Schachter conTEMPorary, eludes a Yahoo! Maps search. The residential, cobblestone alley runs all of a block before dumping onto Hudson River traffic. And Schachter promises to pack up for a spot closer to the Holland Tunnel, in mid-2004. (Late update: no, he promises now to abandon New York entirely for a while, before returning in suitably grand style one day to an as yet undisclosed location.)

Again as in London, these spaces turn on star power. It says something that The Voice and New York wrapped up 2003 with almost the same list of trendy dealers. I had visited only a few by then. Not even Sex and the City had a chance to document them before it—or they—went under for good.

One tries Maccarone because someone from Luhring Augustine, on Chelsea's fanciest block, sends out the press release. One seeks out Participant, Inc., also on the Lower East Side, because the curator worked at Thread Waxing. One returns to Soho when Deitch Projects shows Madonna. One can hardly avoid Schachter, who revels in the roles of artist, entrepreneur, agent provocateur, and celebrity. Again Ace started it all, by bringing an LA gallery and big names like Robert Rauschenberg to the far west side.

Making do

Yet the contrast with London remains. The market still rules America as nowhere else. Through the growing importance of the Armory Show and other global art fairs, the market helps drive change. It may make the mall model less necessary for art, much as e-commerce has cut into real shopping malls. Fittingly enough, Saatchi & Saatchi has its offices on Hudson Street. The ad agency, which funded shock art in London, hangs Frank Stella in the lobby.

Even the nature of celebrity here shouts market power. Instead of Young British Artists, one has Young American Dealers. The gallery premises announce a difference, too. In London architects are restoring and reinventing a city. In lower Manhattan, a dealer learns to make do.

One steps through the shattered glass façade of Participant, Inc., onto makeshift plywood floors. A two-level gallery sounds good on paper, but it amounts to little more than an office and a low-ceilinged mezzanine. Just across the street, Rivington Arms has barely a storefront. The Voice calls Maccarone a kuntshalle, but its multiple floors hold a modest room apiece. Lacking even a doorbell, the dealer has to see you knock on hidden camera, walk down a flight of stairs, and let you in. Stranger still, she may thank you for it.

The market rules the pace of change as well. Chelsea is not going anywhere fast. Those without the cash or the name still take their chances as artists working in Brooklyn and Queens. Smack Mellon in Dumbo, the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition, and the Sculpture Center, down the street from P.S. 1 in Long Island City, can afford decent spaces. Thus far, only Williamsburg gives unknown dealers room to take big chances. There they benefit from close proximity—to each other and to Manhattan.

Commerce definitely defines how New Yorkers get around. In London, the Guardian weekend section makes it relatively easy for anyone to catch up. Here, not even Gallery Guide fairly describes the neighborhoods south of 14th Street or across the East River. A gallery must pay ArtNet for a listing, and many chose not to bother. How do you find them? Better get on the right mailing list, fast.

Finally, commerce may indeed have sunk last month's trend. If Hobbes rules, it should come as no surprise that some just do not cut it. Some hot galleries may have already burnt out. In the end, the mom and pop operations may be falling prey to the mall—or not. One would need more of an art-world insider than I to say for sure.

Back to the mall

On my first four attempts, I penetrated that broken glass only once. As I write, a makeshift note on Canal Street still begs one to knock or call, but no one may answer. For almost two weeks at a time, a postcard on the door announces a show that has closed. Less than a month past the height of its fame, Hudson Clearing's 10,000 square feet stand vacant and for rent. Even Ace is packing it in—for new quarters in Chelsea (before, I should add a few years in retrospect, leaving New York behind for good).

End of story? Stay tuned. Participant, Inc., is opening again in March. Maccarone gets the most space in The Voice spring arts preview. As for Hudson Clearing, I simply do not know. One work from its group show has popped up back in the mall, at Cohan and Leslie in Chelsea. Even that gallery, however, lies at the southern edge of the Chelsea arts scene (as indeed, I should again add in retrospect, will Maccarone in a few years), another sign that the mall may have grown too packed to serve art effectively.

So what about the art? Oh, I just knew someone would ask that. It may be too early to say—or already too late. This space has often praised Ubu's persistence, Smack Mellon's flights of fancy, Exit Art's acts of reconstruction, and Ace's exploitation of its old quarter-mile dark interior. Kenny Schachter will leave behind architecture by Vito Acconci and shows by lively younger painters. The Lower East Side, however, seems suspiciously like the same old thing.

To take just this winter, Chivas Clem at Maccarone seems as much a Warhol outtake as his brand-name name. Its next artist, Christian Jankowski, a witty German-American artist whose work falls between conceptual art and film, looked great in London this fall and would fit perfectly in Chelsea's global mart. Participant, Inc., had pink abstractions and pink Pop logos, a combination that echoes good old Philip Guston. In Hanna Liden's photos, nudes wearing death masks pose artlessly in open landscapes, with none of the pointed beauty of Bill Henson. The combination of a communal, rural ideal with death no doubt seems disturbing for a moment or two. Then one remembers San Francisco rock.

Michael Mahalchick's Totem 1 (Canada New York, 2004)Michael Mahalchick does a bit better at Canada. Nightly performances interrupt his charmingly ragtag art. Woven from blankets and scavenged objects, the works look at once like folk art, totems, and cuddly dolls. In the obligatory video, a man in shirt sleeves concentrates on his laptop, while images on the wall change rapidly behind him. I imagined the installation as an Eskimo family stumbling by mistake into an advertisement. Exploitation of the Alaskan National Wildlife Preserve—or of the Lower East Side—is sure to follow.

The best shows, however, took the concept of urban sprawl seriously. Their art matters most when it allows a viewer to look inward, to ideas and visions, and outward, to the world of their creation. A second part of this article will review the last shows at Ace and Hudson Clearing downtown, along with related exhibitions at the Sculpture Center and in Chelsea.

Taking stock

Meanwhile, where is art heading, at least on the map? Frankly, I never manage to look trendy, and this space has a lousy track record at predictions. In the 1980s I stumbled over street life to visit East Village galleries. I never dreamed that their dealers would fold their tents for Soho the moment they found fame and fortune.

One of my first reviews online called the extension of Soho to the south big news, when I should have forgotten the whole thing. Later I praised Chelsea for its wide-open spirit. Why, one could even drop by on Sundays. Yeah, right. (When big galleries move again to the changing Lower East Side, do not show up Sundays either, although other galleries there will still be open.)

Whatever happens, however, the downtown scene brings to the surface the real stresses behind Chelsea's plethora of choices. Think of how a literal shopping mall disguises the Bush economy's scary constraints. That does not necessarily mark mainstream art as evil. In fact, one Chelsea show may have the last word. Lynn Hershman in her interactive video at Bitforms holds out the dream of artificial intelligence. In practice, it shows the mainstream's obsession with images of women, the culture of money, and the culture of art.

A glass dome, patterned after Thomas Edison's own stock-market ticker, contains a tiny video, like a Palmtop with its design magic exposed. As possessions go, art and latest must-have gadget have a lot in common. The monitor displays a suitably attractive blond, in surroundings vague enough to leave her the focus. Only on the exhibition's postcard could I discern the stock quotes flickering behind her. If Jennie Holzer dares a crawl screen to subvert art and capitalism, Hershman cuts them down to size.

According to the artist, the pulse of the market translates in real time into the woman's "drives"—and I do not mean disk drives. Like John Klima with his Dow-driven mania, she could probably peddle the same software on Wall Street as a market model. This being Saturday, a dull day for the exchange, the woman seemed lackluster. Perhaps art gets boring whenever it adheres too closely to the market. You would be dull, too, if you spent day and night digesting financial news. For the next two weeks she perked up, as if energized by Chelsea's recovery from the downtown threat.

On another monitor, woman with straight, dark hair, and red lipstick responds to typed questions. Her high-toned British accent, choppy delivery, and poor screen resolution denote the artifice of computing and of a gallery— like a cross between Sam Taylor-Wood and The Matrix. She does a fabulous job at defining terms from critical theory, less well if one asks why she likes a certain movie. She spins out, naturally enough, a fabulous definition of reductionism but stammers if asked A-Rod's chances in the Bronx. Women and computers do have their limitations, no doubt. So for now, does art in New York.

BACK to John's arts home page

Hanna Liden ran at Rivington Arms through February 15, 2004, Chivas Clem at Maccarone through February 22, Michael Mahalchick at Canada through March 7, and Lynn Hershman at Bitforms through February 28. A related article will discuss "Sprawl" at Hudson Clearing and more off the beaten track. Another review looks at the New Museum's turn to the Lower East Side in late 2007.


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